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The Secret to Better Grades

Unstuff Your Child's Schedule

While parents want to encourage their kids' academic achievements, a child's sense of worth shouldn't ride on his report card. Make sure he has some chill-out time, says Donahue. "Kids ages pre-K to 11 should have at least two days a week without anything scheduled, so they can de-stress and use their imagination," he says. "These are critical aspects of childhood, and such moments can't be recaptured."

Downtime can even create its own eureka moments. Graham Van Schaik, an 18-year-old college freshman at MIT, says playing outside while growing up in Columbia, SC, made him interested in the outdoors, from constructing backyard forts out of cardboard boxes to wondering how antibiotics given to cows affect the purity of their manure. His natural love for science led him to earn the second-place prize in this year's Intel Science Talent Search, one of the world's most prestigious science competitions.

Experts caution that, as kids get older, carving out free time gets harder, especially if the child is on a sports team or two and/or plays an instrument. But here's a tip: Have family dinners as often as possible. Studies have shown that they deliver a variety of academic and health benefits for adolescents.

Praise Effort, Not Intellect

Sure, when your child does well on a project or a test, it's tempting to say, "Look how smart you are!" Indeed, surveys say that 85 percent of Americans think telling kids they're smart is good parenting. But the experts say it's much better to acknowledge how hard your child worked. Dweck conducted research that revealed that praising kids' intelligence rather than their efforts can make them fear mistakes. They may shun future challenges to avoid messing up and looking "dumb." Shifting the focus from labels ("you're a genius") to the thrill of meeting a challenge ("you worked really hard on that") can help give them the freedom they need in order to excel. "Many students think trying hard is only for the inept. Yet sustained effort over time is the key to achievement," Dweck says.

This same principle can be applied when your child is really struggling with a tough topic; parents should let children know they're doing a terrific job within their own capabilities. Says Erica Remer, mother of top speller Scott: "Kids need to learn that just because they're doing something challenging doesn't mean they should give it up immediately." So reward hard work and earnest effort with the same praise, "Good job!" stickers, and the other reinforcements you'd dole out for a stellar report card.

Isha Jain, 17, a Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology winner this year, says she's so self-motivated because her parents taught her that hard work is its own reward. "That'll definitely help me in the future, because real life isn't based on getting a 4.0," she says, summing it up nicely. "It's the attitude that counts."

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